President-Elect Joe Biden campaigned on an economic recovery policy of “Build Back Better” and it included a platform that called for investment in clean energy, a modernization of manufacturing and innovation, an education workforce and racial equity in America. What was never mentioned is how the U.S. military fits into the equation, and this certainly includes the U.S. Navy.
This year in terms of vessels, China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) became the largest naval force in the world, and it is uncertain what will be done to ensure that the United States Navy doesn’t fall behind. While America still maintains a superior number of aircraft carriers, China has made significant leaps forward—and is building a third carrier.
The issue is whether the incoming administration will see a need to invest in a larger and more powerful fleet. As USNI reported, the Pentagon already spent much of 2020 trying to convince former Secretary of Defense Mark Esper that the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps were being left behind.
Last January the two sea services wrapped up an extensive effort to plan out a future force design that could address the changing challenges of the twenty-first-century, but Esper wasn’t completely sold on the idea and only came around in September.
Now, with Esper out of a job, the new head of the Department of Defense (DoD) slated to take up the post in January and the Navy will once again have to sell the notion that a bigger fleet is required to address the threats posed by Beijing and Moscow.
Earlier this week it was reported that Biden would pick retired four-star General Lloyd Austin, U.S. Army to head up the DoD. Other names on the short list included Jeh Johnson and Tammy Duckworth while Michele Flournoy, who served as undersecretary of Defense for policy, had been initially seen as a lock to be Biden’s pick to head up the DoD. Austin, who retired in 2016, was the former head of the U.S. Central Command. He will still need a congressional waiver to serve, which is required as a recent military retiree.
Regardless of who is named to the post of secretary of defense, it is likely that person will immediately engage in a dialog with Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael M. Gilday, who was named to the post in August 2019. Gilday has pushed for a sea service modernization that would see the size of the fleet grow in size.
“We can’t afford a navy much bigger than about 306 to 310 ships, based on the composition of the fleet that we have today. And so it is going to require more Navy topline,” Gilday said during a speech at the U.S. Naval Institute’s annual Defense Forum Washington event last week. “We have found money inside the Navy budget, but not enough to sustain that effort to give you the numbers that you really need to fight in a [Distributed Maritime Operations]/[Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment] fight.”
The CNO has called for a new fleet that needs more submarines and fewer big surface combatants in favor of additional smaller combatants. Gilday also has also championed more unmanned vessels, additional logistic vessels and a greater composition of the amphibious fleet; while he also called for an investment in future offensive technologies including hypersonic weapons and defensive technologies such as lasers that could be powerful enough to serve in a missile defense role.
How this all fits in the mantra of Build Back Better is unclear, but perhaps that sort of effort is exactly what the U.S. Navy needs for the changing threats of the twenty-first-century. Now it is just convincing the next administration of that fact.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com. This article first appeared in December 2020.